I have long been hesitant in writing about Shakespeare, because it seems almost inconceivable that something new could be said. However, in writing a series about the visions of English poets, to leave Shakespeare out would obviously leave an enormous gap.
In trying to think of a new angle, or at least to approach Shakespeare in a way that would provide some fresh ideas, I was inspired by something Harold Bloom said in Genius, his provocative and illuminating account of inspired writers. Naturally he has Shakespeare at the top of the list, and I suspect no one would disagree – though I cannot but recall here a virtuoso performance by the American critic George Steiner, called ‘A Reading Against Shakespeare’, which he delivered with aplomb at the annual literature seminar that the British Council used to run in Cambridge for many years.
His thesis, or rather one of the most important criticisms he made amongst many, was that there was really no order in the way Shakespeare constructed his world. I still remember the example he used to make this point, his account of the death of Cordelia in King Lear, which he said occurred simply because the message to save her went too late. He contrasted this with the failure to save Antigone in Sophocles’ play of that name, which he noted occurred because Creon the errant protagonist, had to reverse the wrongs he did in order, rather than rescuing Antigone first.
The obvious answer to this complaint was that, while observing the demands of ritual was all very well, it was silly of Creon to have put off assistance to the still living in order to first fulfil his obligations to the dead. But leaving aside such debating points, the broader justification would be that there is no order in the real world, and Shakespeare was above all a painter of the world as it is, not someone who imposed his own formal structures on people and events.
That is a reasonable reply but, in thinking about Shakespeare’s vision after reading Bloom, I realized that there is more to it than that, and we cannot really ignore the formal structures that Shakespeare uses to expand our understanding of human nature. Coincidences abound, and denouements may seem constructed, but there are always reasons for these, that help us to appreciate better how people work on each other.
I have been the more concerned about the frameworks through which we both observe and work on the world since I began to realize how in Sri Lanka things are fast deteriorating because of the absence of systems and formal structures. These facilitate the maintenance and analysis of records and the predictability of responses, which people need if they are to play their own parts with confidence. Without these we seem the playthings of chance and, even if some great tragedies talk about the arbitrary nature of the universe, the more illuminating tragedies make clear our own contribution to what we suffer.
My reflections on the subject sprang from Bloom’s claim, almost a throwaway, that Juliet was a wholly innocent victim in Romeo and Juliet. He asserts that the play ‘is a tragedy of circumstance; nothing in Juliet’s own character leads to the catastrophe.’ This is not to say that the propulsions towards tragedy are by fate alone, since of course the actions and reactions, and indeed the stratagems, of others are what move things along.
The assertion springs from what Bloom obviously assumed his readers would understand, the touchstone on which his identification of this exception was based, namely Aristotle’s seminal claim that a tragic victim had to contribute in some way to his or her fate. Otherwise what happened would simply be pathetic (conversely, he should not act so badly as to deserve the negative consequences that befell him, since then what happened would be just rather than tragic).
I think Bloom is essentially correct in his assessment of Juliet, who is by and large the innocent victim of a world of brutal and destructive concepts of honour and family propriety. I did once, along with Richard de Zoysa, suggest an alternative view, in which we got seven young actors to read extracts from the play in different ways. One interpretation stressed the helplessness of both Romeo and Juliet in a world in which others used them for their own self-centred ends, the other suggested that they were adults who made their own choices with a self-centred determination that paralleled the intransigence of the rest.
But I suspect the latter interpretation was a bit forced, and I am increasingly struck by the pathos with which Shakespeare endows Juliet, as for instance when she finds that even her trusted nurse seems to think there is no alternative except to accept what her parents have chosen for her –
O God!–O nurse, how shall this be prevented?
My husband is on earth, my faith in heaven;
How shall that faith return again to earth,
Unless that husband send it me from heaven
By leaving earth? comfort me, counsel me.
Alack, alack, that heaven should practise stratagems
Upon so soft a subject as myself!
What say’st thou? hast thou not a word of joy?
Some comfort, nurse.
Overwhelmed then with the sense of Juliet’s innocence, I was reminded of George Steiner’s characterization of the death of Cordelia in King Lear, a death that epitomizes pathos, as expressed in the most repetitive pentameter in literature, with each troche hammering in Lear’s despair
And my poor fool is hang’d! No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life,
And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!
That sentence must be heard with the memory of the poetry of Cordelia’s own pronouncements, beginning with her truthful assertion of her love for her father
Good my lord,
You have begot me, bred me, loved me: I
Return those duties back as are right fit,
Obey you, love you, and most honour you.
Why have my sisters husbands, if they say
They love you all? Haply, when I shall wed,
That lord whose hand must take my plight shall carry
Half my love with him, half my care and duty:
Sure, I shall never marry like my sisters,
To love my father all.
The lack of frills, which upsets Lear who had just been fed on the excesses of his two elder daughters, introduces a direct innocence that, though in actual fact we see it all too little in the play, provides a bedrock of decency as the wicked begin to dominate. It is a sad innocence in that it suffers rebuff at the very beginning of the play, and in this contrasts with the enthusiastic innocence of Juliet, who is so full of hope through so much of Romeo and Juliet. But I can do no better, in this first discussion of the genius of Shakespeare, than to cite some passages which show the freshness that Shakespeare could so splendidly illustrate, and celebrate, even though its ultimate fate was tragic.
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself……
O gentle Romeo,
If thou dost love, pronounce it faithfully:
Or if thou think’st I am too quickly won,
I’ll frown and be perverse an say thee nay,
So thou wilt woo; but else, not for the world.
In truth, fair Montague, I am too fond,
And therefore thou mayst think my ‘havior light:
But trust me, gentleman, I’ll prove more true
Than those that have more cunning to be strange.
I should have been more strange, I must confess,
But that thou overheard’st, ere I was ware,
My true love’s passion: therefore pardon me,
And not impute this yielding to light love,
Which the dark night hath so discovered.
Juliet’s expression of impatience is both fresh and full of insight
The clock struck nine when I did send the nurse;
In half an hour she promised to return.
Perchance she cannot meet him: that’s not so.
O, she is lame! love’s heralds should be thoughts,
Which ten times faster glide than the sun’s beams,
Driving back shadows over louring hills:
Therefore do nimble-pinion’d doves draw love,
And therefore hath the wind-swift Cupid wings.
Now is the sun upon the highmost hill
Of this day’s journey, and from nine till twelve
Is three long hours, yet she is not come.
Had she affections and warm youthful blood,
She would be as swift in motion as a ball;
My words would bandy her to my sweet love,
And his to me:
But old folks, many feign as they were dead;
Unwieldy, slow, heavy and pale as lead.
O God, she comes!
And, finallty, the parting of the lovers has some of the most resonant lines in romance
Wilt thou be gone? it is not yet near day:
It was the nightingale, and not the lark,
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear;
Nightly she sings on yon pomegranate-tree:
Believe me, love, it was the nightingale.
It was the lark, the herald of the morn,
No nightingale: look, love, what envious streaks
Do lace the severing clouds in yonder east:
Night’s candles are burnt out, and jocund day
Stands tiptoe on the misty mountain tops.
I must be gone and live, or stay and die.
Yon light is not day-light, I know it, I:
It is some meteor that the sun exhales,
To be to thee this night a torch-bearer,
And light thee on thy way to Mantua:
Therefore stay yet; thou need’st not to be gone.
Let me be ta’en, let me be put to death;
I am content, so thou wilt have it so.
I’ll say yon grey is not the morning’s eye,
‘Tis but the pale reflex of Cynthia’s brow;
Nor that is not the lark, whose notes do beat
The vaulty heaven so high above our heads:
I have more care to stay than will to go:
Come, death, and welcome! Juliet wills it so.
How is’t, my soul? let’s talk; it is not day.
It is, it is: hie hence, be gone, away!
It is the lark that sings so out of tune,
Straining harsh discords and unpleasing sharps.
Some say the lark makes sweet division;
This doth not so, for she divideth us:
Some say the lark and loathed toad change eyes,
O, now I would they had changed voices too!
Since arm from arm that voice doth us affray,
Hunting thee hence with hunt’s-up to the day,
O, now be gone; more light and light it grows.